Sunday, January 29, 2006


Strong language

A piece entitled Strong Language in a recent FT Weekend section (still available here) notes the
overwhelming dominance of English language writers, and of British ones in particular
in the league table of most-translated authors (Index Translationum).

The writer sees two reasons for this. One is: by jingo, we’re better than them.

The other, as flagged by the title of the article, is that the English language itself is superior. This is illustrated in the usual manner:
The English language is a remarkable beast. There's its sheer capacity for one thing. French can muster around 100,000 words, German perhaps double that. The English language, on the other hand, counts at least 500,000 words, and probably half as many again

There are only around 25,000 Anglo-Saxon words in use today. The rest of the half million or more words come from other languages, notably French and Latin. And that gives English a rare and wonderful suppleness. It can be earthy when it chooses to be, high-flown when it cares to. English is one of the few languages in the world in which one can swear like a German and make love like the French.
Seems a strange sort of argument to explain why English works should be more translated than those written in other languages. To the extent that the superiority of English authors is due to the superiority of the language itself, surely that advantage is the first thing that’s lost once they’re translated into something else?

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